The Mighty Shaggs

Hosted by
It used to be that the theater was where you saw great men and women (Oedipus, Clytemnestra, Lear) fall from grace. These days, theater and our other forms of popular mythmaking prefer to focus on the falls of not-so-great men and women who never had much grace to begin with.

This "so bad it's good" form of drama is so prevalent in our culture that there's certainly enough fodder for a college course on the subject-and if there is such a course, no doubt the seminal text would have to be the film THIS IS SPINAL TAP.

Since SPINAL TAP, plays like HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH and films like ED WOOD have solidified the theory that "bad is good," and even suggest that bad may be better than good.

This past weekend, the makers of SPINAL TAP were in town for a live, staged version of their latest mockumentery, A MIGHTY WIND, a film that showcased three of the worst folk music acts to never hit the charts. The staged MIGHTY WIND is largely an excuse to recycle the jokes from the movie and to, of course, hear the sublimely moronic tunes live-but it also allows one to see just how far the actors have buried themselves in these characters. Seeing Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara performing as Mitch and Mickey, you'd swear they've been touring together for decades.

But as mindless as acts like The New Main Street Singers and the Folksman are, they honestly sound like the Berlin Philharmonic when compared to the music of The Shaggs-a rock band from the seventies so awful, you'd swear they were one of Christopher Guest's creations. As painful as it is to accept, as you watch the new play about them at the Ford Theater, The Shaggs are bad enough to be true.

The real life Shaggs were three sisters (Helen, Betty and Dot Wiggins) who had never taken music lessons-let alone attended a concert-who were forced by their father to record a rock album entitled PHILOSOPHY OF THE WORLD. The album was anointed by Rolling Stone "as the worst rock album in history" and those who have heard any of the Shaggs songs know this is not hyperbole.

This version of THE SHAGGS at the Ford, does interpolate some of their actual music into the play, but it also has new musical numbers written by Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen. Make no mistake, this theatrical production is not simply a tribute or a revue-THE SHAGGS is a serious attempt to fuse the American pop musical with a real-life American tragedy.

The play opens with puppet versions of the Wiggins sisters playing their songs-a move that calls to mind Todd Haynes' infamous short film SUPERSTAR which told the story of Karen Carpenter with Barbie Dolls. But thankfully, this is gimmick is jettisoned and when the actresses portraying the Shaggs emerge, any glib irony disappears.

These three young actresses wear some great period wigs and costumes, but they do not look exactly like the real Shaggs-no their performances are more interpretations than impersonations. They create real characters out of each of the sisters, making them genuinely pathetic and sympathetic at the same time. All three are excellent, but Hedy Burress shines as Helen Wiggin.

She is silent throughout most of the play, but her posture speaks volumes. Timid and pigeon-toed, Burress makes Helen twitch with silent loathing for herself and the world. And yet, despite the fierce tension in her expressions and gestures, Burress manages to give off a glow of innocence, as if under the drab clothes and hideous haircut, is a pure and articulate woman trying to escape.

But escape is impossible for the Shaggs, as Helen and her sisters are held captive by their father: a brutal, small-town, show-biz dad. Looking like a cross between a Francis Bacon and an El Greco, Steven Patterson's portrayal of Austin Wiggin is incendiary from the first moment he appears on stage. Inside the Ford is a small theater and Patterson's menace and rage floods the entire space.

THE SHAGGS is a world premiere and it is an important one for Los Angeles. The show is perhaps a bit long (cutting one or two of the original songs could help) but its ambition makes the work's few problems seem inconsequential. The people responsible for THE SHAGGS, both on stage and off, clearly believe in the material and have spent a long time shaping the performance with the same innocent enthusiasm as their subjects-and the result is a genuinely moving piece of theater that's so good, it's good.

This is James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW.